By Steve Guntli
John Finn sits in his living room, enjoying the beautiful view of the bay from his hillside home in Birch Bay Village. He has just finished a trip across the country, and is recovering from the excitement.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” he said. “My head is still spinning from the whole experience.”
The 94-year-old veteran recently returned from an emotional journey to Washington, D.C., where he visited the World War II memorial for the first time. While remembering those lost in that terrible conflict is enough to make anyone feel emotional, the reception that Finn received made the experience particularly heartfelt.
Finn was one of 30 men and women visiting the nation’s capital courtesy of Puget Sound Honor Flight, a charity organization that offers WWII vets all-expense-paid weekend trips to the memorial as a way of thanking them for their service.
From 1943 to 1945, Finn served with the U.S. Coast Guard, crewing a supply ship that brought food and supplies to outposts throughout the South Pacific. He was one of the original contributors to the WWII memorial when organizers were first trying to raise funds in the early 1990s, and has wanted to visit it ever since it was first unveiled 10 years ago. Thanks to the Honor Flight program, he finally got his chance.
Retired Air Force captain Earl Morse founded the National Honor Flight Network immediately after the completion of the memorial in 2004. Since then, the charity has opened 127 hubs in 41 states, and has transported nearly 100,000 veterans to the memorial. The organization receives no federal funding, and it does not accept money from any WWII veterans. Funding comes from private donations and contributions from American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts around the country.
Finn first heard about the program when on vacation in Palm Springs, California earlier this year.
He and his wife, Barbara, researched it when they returned home and promptly applied. The Puget Sound Honor Flight, which was started in 2013, makes approximately six trips each year, in the early fall or spring. Finn was told he had around 1,000 names ahead of his on the wait list and would probably have to wait until May.
Much to his surprise, Finn received a call in late September, telling him he’d been accepted for the October 18 Honor Flight.
“It all happened so fast,” Barbara said. “I think we’re still getting over the whole thing.”
Finn suspects his name moved up on the list due to his age, and to the unfortunately rapid rate the “Greatest Generation” is disappearing.
According to statistics from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, approximately 555 WWII veterans die every day. There are just over 1 million American WWII vets still alive today, out of the 16 million who served. The Honor Flight program gives special preference to vets older than 90 or suffering from a terminal illness, according to the Honor Flight program’s website.
While the organization’s financial limitations couldn’t accommodate Barbara or other family members on the trip, Finn was accompanied every step of the way. Each vet making the trip is assigned their own guardian, who bunks with them in their hotel room and helps them get around.
Finn spoke particularly highly of his guardian, a Vietnam veteran named Wayne. Finn learned that not only are the guardians who sign up for the program unpaid, but they actually have to pay a $1,000 fee to participate.
“These guardians were totally amazing,” Barbara said. “They make it possible for some of these older veterans to make this trip.”
Finn and his fellow veterans were received as heroes at every point of the journey. They were greeted at SeaTac airport by friends, family and well wishers holding signs and waving flags. At the Baltimore Washington International Airport, active duty armed forces members greeted them at the gate and pushed them through the airport in wheelchairs. A group of about 40 motorcyclists escorted the group’s tour bus from their hotel to the memorial, where a color guard was waiting to receive them.
The organization provided a wheelchair for every participant, but when Finn came to the memorial, he chose to walk on his own to take it all in. The memorial is surrounded with stone pylons for each state, and Finn was sure to stop at the ones for Washington, his current home, and Michigan, where he was born and raised.
He also visited the Freedom Wall, which is decorated with 4,000 gold stars to commemorate the 400,000 Americans lost in the war.
One of the more moving moments for Finn came when he returned home. Each veteran was sent home with a quilt and a special packet prepared by the organization. Finn’s quilt was handmade by Jan King of Poulsbo, Washington and included a dedication she had written to Michael Glaze, a friend who’d served in Korea and recently passed away.
Inside the packet were a dozen letters from around the country, written by high school students expressing their gratitude for his service. The Honor Flight organizers asked Finn’s son, Jay, to write a letter to his father.
“I had no idea he even knew about it,” Finn said. “They had me put him down for an emergency contact number, but I didn’t know they would ask him to do that. It was such a nice surprise.”
In all, the weekend trip to D.C. didn’t cost Finn a dime. Food, lodging and even the incidentals on the airplane were completely comped.
“These people need to be known,” Finn said. “What they do for us veterans, at such great expense to themselves, it’s just remarkable. I had tears in my eyes. I still get emotional just thinking about it.”
For more information, visit pugetsoundhonorflight.org.